A concern I sometimes hear from clients as far as the use of training treats goes something like, “But then won’t my dog only listen when I have a treat in my hand?” I understand their hesitation. But there’s a big difference between rewarding a dog with a treat and using one as a bribe. If you’re dangling a treat and yelling, “Come!” chances are you’re teaching your dog to come to you…that is, when a treat is visible. That’s bribery, not training. It’s an important distinction.
I use plenty of treats when training new skills. It makes sense, since most dogs are food-motivated. But in addition to using treats as a reward instead of a bribe, it’s essential to understand how to phase them out. When learning a new skill, dogs should be rewarded with a treat each time they perform it correctly. But once the skill has been mastered, meaning the dog has practiced it in various circumstances and around distractions, a treat reward is not necessary every time.
There are two main ways to phase out treats: one is by substituting real-life rewards. For example, when it’s time for a walk, you have your dog sit by the door and wait. Rather than receiving a treat for this amazing feat of doggy self-control, the reward is that the door opens so the walk can begin. Or maybe you’re sitting on your couch when your dog comes over looking for affection. He’s already put himself in a sit, so you ask him to lie down; once he does, you give him a tummy rub. There are no treats involved, other than the fact that being petted by you is a treat.
The other way to fade treats is to go to a schedule of random reinforcement. This means that rather than rewarding every successful repetition of an exercise, you still reward with a treat but not every time, and unpredictably. Maybe you reward the second, fifth, and seventh repetition of an exercise one time, but then give a treat for the first, fourth, and sixth the next. It’s the same principle as playing a slot machine. Dogs keep playing because they just might win. Over time, fewer treats can be given, still on a random schedule.
But what about phasing treats out altogether? Well, you certainly can, and many people do. Others don’t want to stop using them, believing that a dog should still get paid now and then for a job well done. After all, if you got better at your job, would you want to stop getting a paycheck? With certain behaviors like Sit, treats naturally get phased out pretty quickly. But I’m a fan of still using treats or some sort of reward at least once in a while in order to keep up a dog’s motivation for things like coming when called. So, the short answer is yes, you can phase treats out altogether, and hopefully a habitual response will have been established to the point that the dog will listen even if he’s never rewarded again. But would you want to fade treats out altogether? I’m curious as to your take on this. Leave a comment! ___________________________________________________ You can find my books and streaming/DVD seminars on www.nicolewilde.com, and my coaching program for aspiring, new, and experienced trainers at www.dogtrainersfriend.com. You can also find me on Facebook.